By People Staff
October 23, 2003 12:13 PM

Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping in June 2002 devastated her close-knit family. In their new book, Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Journey of Faith and Hope (due from Doubleday on Oct. 28), Ed and Lois Smart relive the pain of her abduction, the frantic search, Ed’s nervous breakdown – and their daughter’s joyous homecoming. The following is an excerpt of their personal account of the ordeal.

JUNE 5, 2002: 3:58 a.m.
ED: We awoke to the sound of a voice filled with fright – that of our 9-year-old daughter, Mary Katherine.

“She’s gone. Elizabeth is gone.”

Mary Katherine stood by Lois’s side of the bed, her head covered by her baby blanket. At first we were certain it had just been a bad dream. (But) she went on, “A man came and took her. He had a gun.” (We) ran from the room and down the stairs, flicking on every light switch. Lois’s eyes fell on the cut screen in the kitchen window, and she screamed in utter disbelief and shock. That’s when we both realized that Mary Katherine’s words had quickly become our worst nightmare. Our daughter Elizabeth was gone.

ED: I remember feeling as if the police didn’t have control over the situation. In the early hours of the first day, I was bothered they weren’t out there looking for my daughter. The house was not immediately sealed as a crime scene, which was confusing and troubling. Looking back, this turned out to be a huge oversight on the part of the police.

When the investigators started looking at our family, the obvious thought was that I might be involved. The police were pushing me to the point of breaking – which was their goal. If they could break me, surely I’d confess. This was definitely one of the lowest points of my life.

I had been crying uncontrollably for three days – since the morning Elizabeth was taken. That night two FBI agents had to help me up the stairs to my bedroom. My mind was overwhelmed by the situation our family was facing. I was checked into the hospital, unable to stop myself from crying. By morning I had suffered what my doctors would later tell me was a mild nervous breakdown. They sedated me when I checked in, but I kept right on crying. I just couldn’t stop.

LOIS: A few weeks after Elizabeth was kidnapped, I was having a particularly bad Sunday. I got all of the children ready for church, but I simply couldn’t muster the strength to pull myself together. I was lying on my bed, looking up at the ceiling, feeling lost and distraught. I had been crying and crying. I kept praying for an answer to why this could be happening. And then I heard a voice in my head, clear as anything I have ever heard, say the words “Be of good cheer.” It was enough to get me out of bed that morning. I dressed and went to church.

“I think it might be Immanuel.”

It was unbelievable to hear Mary Katherine utter those words. None of our children had seen the man she named (Brian David Mitchell, who had worked for a day around the Smarts’ home in early 2002) for more than a few minutes. We are certain that Mary Katherine received divine inspiration. How on earth could she have come up with his name on her own?

As the only eyewitness to the crime, Mary Katherine had been unknowingly traumatized more than we can ever imagine. The police questioned her over and over again, but she never wavered from her story. She had held the secret of who took Elizabeth for a long time, but finally the missing piece had surfaced.

ED: Christmas was the hardest holiday. Going to the department stores and selecting games and toys didn’t feel right. This year, we got back to the true meaning and spirit of the holiday – the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Instead of gifts, we decided to give each of the children Christmas Boxes. The idea came from a story Lois read when she was a child. It was the story of an empty box. When the child in the story opens the box, he wonders why it is empty. He is told that the box isn’t empty. It is filled with a gift he can’t see or taste but he can feel – it is love. We filled the boxes with items we thought were meaningful. Photos of each child as a baby, of them growing up, of the entire family, and of Elizabeth. As hard as it was for the children to not celebrate Christmas as we always had, they loved receiving their boxes. As a way of honoring their missing sister, each of the children wrote a short note to her as a Christmas wish.

Witnesses began to call 911 after recognizing Brian David Mitchell from the most recent airing of America’s Most Wanted. The first call came from Anita and Alvin Dickerson, who had spotted a bearded man and two women walking on the street near a Kinko’s in Sandy, Utah. Sandy police officer Karen Jones was nearby when the 911 call came in. She approached the trio and separated Brian David Mitchell for questioning. She asked his name and for some identification. Mitchell responded with a pseudonym, “Peter Marshall.” He said his wife’s name was Juliette and their daughter was Augustine.

Officers repeatedly asked the young girl in the veil her name. “Augustine,” she said three times. “I know you think I’m that Elizabeth Smart girl who ran away, but I’m not.” Officer Troy Rasmussen said he could see her heart beating through her shirt.

ED: I was sitting in my office, working, when the phone rang. It was Detective Parks. He told me to drop everything I was doing, don’t call anyone, and to go straight to the Sandy police station. As we approached a closed-off room, the officer said to me, “We think we found a homeless girl that might be Elizabeth.” The door was opened, and I was stunned. There, sitting on a sofa, very quiet and subdued, was a girl with her arms folded. She looked like a homeless girl. She was taller, bigger, more mature-looking than Elizabeth. She was unkempt. Her face was round, swollen from being outdoors in the sun. I wasn’t certain at first that it was her. I went over and put my arms around her and just started bawling. I held her back, looked her in the eyes, and said, “Is it really you, Elizabeth?”

“Yes, Dad.”

I grabbed Elizabeth and held her close to me. I never wanted to let go.

LOIS: When we arrived at the station, I was stunned when I saw her for the first time. It was not Elizabeth – at least not my Elizabeth. Her hair was in two French braids – a way she had never worn her hair before she was taken. Her shoulders had developed from carrying a heavy backpack. This Elizabeth didn’t look anything like the little girl in the missing posters. It was very hard to see her like that. I grabbed Elizabeth and hugged her as tightly as I could. She held on to me, digging her fingers into my back.

LOIS: Finally, at approximately ten o’clock in the evening, we were able to head home. The first thing Elizabeth wanted to do was take a bath. I drew the biggest bubble bath I had ever made in my large Jacuzzi tub. The dirt, grime, and soot that sat at the bottom of the tub when she finished her bath was thick and muddy.

Around midnight, we all piled on my bed and Elizabeth asked if we could watch the tape of one of her favorite movies, The Trouble with Angels. I was certain that Elizabeth would be sleeping in our room that first night home. I couldn’t imagine her wanting to go back to the bed from which she had been taken. However, when the movie ended, Elizabeth got up as if nothing had ever happened, and said she was tired and ready for bed. “Mom, don’t worry. I’m going to be safe. I’m going to be here in the morning.”

I will never forget those words.

I am so happy and thankful to be home with the people I love. I’m doing great. I owe a lot to my family and to the great friends that I have. I want to thank them for not giving up on me.

Through my experience, I have learned not to take anything for granted – not my life, my family, my safety, my health, my friends, or even my enemies. You have to live life every day knowing how precious God’s gifts are.

If today were your last day on earth, would you have told the people you love that you love them? Would you have any regrets? Would you be able to die peacefully and without a grudge? I have learned that living in the moment means taking the time to do the things that are meaningful and important. Every day is a blessing. I feel so blessed to be back home, with my family and friends. I truly am the luckiest girl in the world!

Adapted from the book BRINGING ELIZABETH HOME: A Journey of Faith and Hope by Ed and Lois Smart with Laura Morton. Copyright © 2003. To be published by Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc. Reprinted with permission.

This is an excerpt of this week’s PEOPLE cover story, available on newsstands Friday, Oct. 24.

For more information about finding the missing, contact the organizations below.

• Laura Recovery Center
307 B-1 South Friendswood Drive
Friendswood, TX 77546
phone: (281) 482-5723
fax: (281) 482-5727

• National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Charles B. Wang International Children’s Building
699 Prince Street
Alexandria, VA 22314-3175
phone: (703) 274-3900
fax: (703) 274-2200
hotline: (800) THE-LOST (800-843-5678)

• America’s Most Wanted
P.O. Box Crime TV
Washington, D.C. 20016-9126
(800) CRIME-TV